AC Milan 2-3 Manchester United – Ferguson wins the battle of the midfields

February 19, 2010

Leonardo chose completely the wrong midfield for this game, selecting David Beckham alongside Andrea Pirlo and Massimo Ambrosini. This was the first time that Beckham had started in central midfield for Milan this season (until now he had played as a right-sided attacking player, where Pato played on Tuesday) and Milan’s midfielders seemed rather unsure of what they were supposed to be doing. Ambrosini is traditionally a defensive midfield player, but his role has taken on a much more offensive slant this season – so, with him tending to venture forward, this left Pirlo and Beckham in the centre of midfield. But they are basically very similar players in this role – neither are tacklers, neither have pace, both like to sit relatively deep and hit accurate passes to the wings. This worked reasonably well going forward in the first quarter of the game, but one suspected it was only a matter of time before the midfield was overrun. And that turned out to be true, United dominated possession in the second half, and deserved to be 1-3 up.

Was Leonardo influenced by the media circus involving Beckham facing United? It’s strange that he chose such a big game to deploy him in this role for the first time , especially considering Beckham has done well on the right-hand side, and would have offered far better defensive awareness there than Pato against Patrice Evra. The better bet for Leonardo would surely have been to play Pato in a central role, push Beckham onto the right-hand side, and insert either Rino Gattuso or Clarence Seedorf into the midfield, with Klaas-Jan Huntelaar making way.

Beckham was eventually replaced with Seedorf, which perhaps gave the false impression that Beckham was poor. He wasn’t – no more than Pirlo was – it was just that Milan had two players doing very similar jobs. Their midfield three was actually outclassed in a very similar way to United’s was in the Champions League final against Barcelona last season, because they were all playing in the same area of the pitch, roughly doing the same thing, and not visibly aware of their individual roles. Seedorf’s introduction drove Milan forward because he is a much more direct player than Beckham, and it was a fitting ending that he got the goal that keeps the tie alive.

Leonardo has done a very good job this season with a relatively underwhelming squad, and when you consider that Milan are in their first season without their playmaker of six years, their manager of eight years, and their captain of fifteen years. But in the big clashes, against Mourinho and Ferguson, he has so far been outwitted.

From United’s point of view, the most striking thing was the fact that Ji-Sung Park was fielded in what was essentially a ‘trequartista’ role behind Rooney, with Fletcher deployed in a narrowish left-sided role, almost creating an off-centre diamond with the right-winger, Nani, staying wide. This is similar to what Ferguson did away at Stamford Bridge, in a game United dominated and should have won. Park’s pace and work-rate have generally been used as a defensive option in an attacking area against full-backs, but Ferguson chose to deploy him up against Milan’s central midfield, and he harrassed them really effectively throughout the game. The ground covered by Park and Fletcher alone beat that of Beckham, Pirlo and Ambrosini, and this meant that Scholes and Carrick had time on the ball to play. Carrick, in particular, had so much space whenever he received the ball, and had an excellent game. His loss  for the second leg is a big blow for United.

Rooney was again brilliant in a central striking role – to lead the line away from home against Milan, up against Alessandro Nesta, and score two goals is simply remarkable. The feeling that this should be his role for England in the summer is growing, and rightly so.

Another tactical victory for Sir Alex Ferguson, and yet the myth that he ‘has never been a great tactician’ is still considered fair in the mainstream media.

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